Sunday, March 2, 2014

Homosexuality and Human Rights: Uganda Taking Steps Backward

I often wonder what it must feel like to have been a Peace Corps volunteer back in the day in a country that I couldn't fathom Peace Corps operating in today.  For example, I wonder how RPCVs from Afghanistan or the DRC feel today, first looking back on their service and contributions to that country, and second looking at where that country is now.  I can imagine how disheartening that must be to see a country that you put so much of your personal efforts into digress when it comes to things like economic development and political stability.

I often times refer to Uganda as "my country".  Obviously, I'm an American citizen and (don't get me wrong) I am true and loyal to Uncle Sam; however, I've never spent so much time outside the U.S. as I did when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda.  For two years, I felt like I put an immense amount of effort into bettering that country.  For this reason, I often feel like it is my country, in the same way someone would feel ownership of a big project they are working on.  When the outcome is successful, you feel good, and when things digress, you don't feel so good.

All this being said, my true point of this post is to put out my thoughts on Uganda's most recent anti-gay law.  The entire time I spent in Uganda, this bill was always on the table for the parliament to pass.  And because of this, it always made us (volunteers) feel like we were in a bit of limbo.  The U.S. government had threatened to pull out all foreign aid if it was ever passed and Peace Corps is a foreign aid program.  So based on this one bill being passed in parliament, we knew that it could cause us to be pulled out and potentially sent home.  And as much as volunteers may complain about their host country, no one wants to involuntarily leave without being able to finish up projects and properly close out their service.

Normally when the topic of homosexually is brought up in any context (in the U.S. or internationally), I usually take a very indifferent approach.  I never understood those who are so greatly opposed to things such as gay marriage.  If it isn't affecting you, why should you be so against it?  However, I'm sure the same could be said of the rights of minorities back in the 60s.  People generally oppose what they don't understand or what they don't want to understand.  For me, I never saw any reason why I would oppose the rights of gay people, however, as a straight woman, I also never felt the need to be a big advocate of it (until now...)

To give you some more background on what is currently going on in Uganda right now, Parliament passed an anti-homosexuality bill in January of this year, at which time it was sent to the President for his signature.  At first, it didn't seem that President Museveni was going to approve of it.  I think that maybe he saw the consequences that would be imposed on Uganda by the international community, however, the Ugandan people put a lot of pressure on him.  This led him to shift his standpoint (probably partly in lieu of the 2016 elections).  He called for a panel of experts to research the "issue" and determine whether or not there is a genetic basis for homosexually.  (As a side note, I feel that this is part of the problem with developing countries.  They think they need to reinvent the wheel after it has already been done).  Basically, the ministry of health hired these scientists who (after a few weeks) came out with a report; however, the report was based on research that was poorly cited, misinterpreted and sometimes not cited at all.  When the Ugandan government is looking for a specific outcome and they hire people to produce the outcome, what do you think that outcome will be?  It's going to be whatever the government wants it to be.  This is corruption at its finest.  Meanwhile, in the U.S., researchers at Northwestern University came out with a study that reports the exact opposite of this Ugandan panel of experts.  So, based on his own "evidence", Museveni signed the bill into law.

This law, although not as harsh as its original proposed version, still allows for people to be put in jail for simply being who they are.  It also allows the government to imprison those who know someone who is gay and does not turn them over to the police.  This is such a basic violation of human rights, that I can't even fathom what Uganda's Human Rights Report is going to look like next year.

Once the bill was passed into law, the Red Pepper, a Ugandan tabloid, reported the names of suspected homosexuals in Uganda.  However, this is not the first time this has happened.  In 2010, another tabloid that no longer exists printed a similar list of known homosexuals.  And only a month later, David Kato, one of the biggest LGBT advocates in Uganda was killed.  Keep in mind, this was before this law was even passed, so I don't think things going to get any better now.

For obvious reasons, the international community and many foreign governments are outraged.  This is a blatant violation of human rights occurring in a country that receives a huge amount of foreign aid.  Some countries, including Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, have already cut some of their foreign aid programs.  The U.S. has yet to cut any aid, however, President Obama has made it quite clear that the U.S.-Ugandan relationship has become strained.  President Museveni doesn't seem to care, making statements saying that Uganda will develop without foreign aid from these countries.  I find this most interesting because Uganda gets a large amount of funding for antiretrovirals (ARVs) for those living with HIV.  It appears that the Ugandan government is more interested in ridding its country of gays than saving the lives of over a million of its citizens from dying of AIDS.  This is a blatant disregard for human life.

The bottom line is that I'm one of those RPCVs who is becoming disheartened by my former host country.  I feel that when it comes to human rights, Uganda is moving backwards instead of forwards.  This is particularly discouraging because I put so much of my time and effort into trying to make a difference there and yet it is still dragged back down by such close-mindedness.

Note: I've posted below many of the articles that I've come across that reference this subject (most of these are from the last few weeks).  Most of what I wrote here is based on my own personal knowledge of the subject (acquired partly from reading these articles), so you may not find every single detail cited in these articles.  But if you would like any further reading on this topic, these are some good sources.

Uganda President Signs Harsh Anti-Gay Law

Museveni Seeks U.S. Advice on Homosexuality

How Museveni Used Junk Science to Pass Uganda's Anti-Gay Bill

Museveni Responds to Obama on Anti-Gay Bill

Uganda Tabloid Prints Names of People it Says are Homosexual

Day After Uganda's Anti-Gay Law is Signed, a Tabloid Publishes Names

LGBT Ugandans Attacked, Killed as Tabloid Lists 'Top 200 Homos'

Several Countries Cut Aid to Uganda Over Anti-Gay Law

Ugandan Government Shrugs Off Aid Cuts Over Anti-Gay Law

Gay Not to Be Encountered: Culture Minister

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